Few teams in NBA history have had such a stark contrast between their regular season and playoff success. As a result, the Milwaukee Bucks’ young superstar may be on his way out.
If I told you that your favorite team would earn the No. 1 seed in back-to-back years, and on top of that employ the league’s Most Valuable Player in both seasons, you’d be pretty ecstatic. Winning 60 games one year, being on pace for that threshold a second straight season, and rostering one of three players to ever win MVP and Defensive Player of the Year in the same season is, in fact, pretty awesome.
But those accolades can have diminishing returns. Running roughshod over the league for six months isn’t as meaningful as winning four consecutive playoff series. Three straight wins against random teams in February are a lot easier to come by than four out of seven against the same team. Opponents can expose your weak links and neutralize your strengths much easier in a playoff setting.
The Milwaukee Bucks found this out the hard way on Tuesday, as they dropped Game 5 to the Miami Heat and said goodbye to their season. Led by Jimmy Butler and Bam Adebayo, the Heat did exactly what good playoff teams do: mitigate its opponent’s strengths while revealing its flaws.
For a second straight summer, the Bucks failed to make the Finals despite being the No. 1 seed in the East. Losing to the eventual champion Toronto Raptors last year is somewhat defensible, especially since Kawhi Leonard played for them, but the Heat were much inferior to that Raptors team. And yet, despite a noteworthy talent drop-off from Toronto to Miami, and despite the Bucks being a year older in terms of playoff experience together, they find themselves in the same exact spot. Only this time, the end may be near.
In case you haven’t heard, Giannis Antetokounmpo is an unrestricted free agent next offseason. He is eligible for a Designated Veteran Player Extension (more commonly called a “supermax”) with Milwaukee if he wants one, but he also has complete freedom to choose his own team for the first time in his career. And he will have no shortage of suitors; the other 29 teams in the league would do everything in their power to court him, should he become available.
The clock was ticking last offseason, but now it’s more like an alarm. For his part, Giannis has said he’s committed to Milwaukee. But the Bucks have to be serious playoff performers next season, or their franchise player is gone forever. Here are the steps they can take to make themselves legitimate title contenders next season and convince their superstar to stay.
1. The Bucks need to get a real secondary shot creator
The Bucks did a good job building around Giannis in the last few years. He’s dominant when attacking the basket, pulverizing smaller defenders and blowing by bigger ones. Making him the hub of the offense, with shooters and cutters around him, makes sense when he gets those advantages.
But Giannis is not perfect; there are players on this planet capable of holding him off physically, such as Bam Adebayo and Joel Embiid. He’s not a great shooter either, meaning that those players who can hang with him can somewhat sag off to congest offensive spacing.
When defenses lock-in and the Bucks need to create offense from scratch, Giannis probably shouldn’t be that initiator. Khris Middleton probably isn’t that guy either, and Eric Bledsoe certainly isn’t. The Bucks need that guy who you can just give the ball to and say “make sh*t happen.”
If you’re imagining Chris Paul, you’re not alone. But unless they want to wreak havoc and trade Middleton, they’ll have a tough time matching Paul’s money without sending other valuable pieces. In other words, they’d be robbing Peter to pay Paul (literally).
The idea of Chris Paul, though, makes a lot of sense. He’s a true game manager, can play off of Giannis and Middleton for stretches (he’s played complementary roles before), and gets the most out of his teammates even when the offense runs through him. He’s one of the best point guards of all time. If ownership is willing to pay him, the main concern is how much longer he maintains this level of excellence.
Granted, the Bucks are (or at least should be) going for it all. Their championship window is only open for as long as Giannis is on the team. So gunning for a true star should be on the table regardless of age, especially since the skill set they need is very specific and rare.
Would the Portland Trail Blazers break up their star duo? Their ceiling seems to have already been reached last season, when they clawed their way to the conference finals only to be swept by the Golden State Warriors. Injuries didn’t help their case this season, but Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum were once again ousted early in the playoffs.
Trail Blazers Get
2020 1st round pick (via IND)
2024 1st round pick (unprotected)
This would be contingent on two things: the Blazers even considering the idea of trading Lillard, their franchise player who is in his prime, and then them also being content with treading the middle in regards to a trade package. Getting veterans and assets is not the ideal return package for a superstar (you always want more assets if you’re getting worse), but small markets can rarely undergo a full rebuild anyway. Think along the lines of what the San Antonio Spurs got for Kawhi Leonard, but more stuff.
If Milwaukee wants to give up less stuff, some lower-rung names will probably become available. But you also get what you pay for when you buy on a budget; scoring guards who wouldn’t cost an immense amount have their warts.
Take Zach LaVine, for example: he’s very athletic, a good shooter and can turn the tides of a game in a matter of minutes. But he can also lose you a game as fast as he wins you one, has never graded out as a good defender, is a limited playmaker, and but has never been part of a winning team. Some of those holes would improve with a superior team, but would that be enough to take the Bucks over the top?
Jrue Holiday fills a lot of holes for great teams, but do you want the ball in his hands with two minutes to go in Game 6 of the Finals? Bradley Beal would be a flamethrower in the Bucks’ offense, but would he be able to ad-lib the attack as needed? Would the Toronto Raptors be willing to orchestrate a Kyle Lowry trade or Fred VanVleet sign-and-trade to a conference rival?
There are options, but none of them are particularly clean. Such is the life of a desperate contender.
2. The Bucks need to become a more flexible defense
I am not discounting what the Bucks have accomplished the last two seasons. Their defense was arguably more dominant than their offense over that time, as its defensive rating was tops in the league both years.
But like their offense, their defense is much easier to hone in on during a playoff series. The pick-and-roll drop coverage that plants Brook Lopez at the rim works against a lot of teams, especially those with guards who lack a quick trigger. If the guard is a step too slow making a decision, his man has enough time to recover and get right back into the play, nullifying the play.
But for players like Jimmy Butler, who have no problem pulling up from the 3-point line (when it matters) and mid-range, there are opportunities to get buckets. The Heat figured out the Bucks’ defense very early in their playoff series, and the Bucks didn’t have a counter punch.
That has to change next season. Whether head coach Mike Budenholzer has to be fired in favor or a more versatile coach or the personnel has to be replaced with more malleable defenders, something has to give. What works in the regular season doesn’t always translate to the playoffs. Sticking to what’s worked is effective until it isn’t, and by then it may be too late.
For the front office, this process begins by pinpointing the root of the problem. Was Budenholzer’s obstinacy the main culprit, or was the rotation comprised of too many limited defenders? For as stubborn as Budenholzer is, the roster is usually more to blame for issues like this. The Bucks were built to play a certain way; changing out the pieces may alter how the board is played entirely.
Antetokounmpo is one of the best help defenders in the league, and also one of the most versatile ones. He’s less impactful on the ball, but his size, length and agility still make him a force to be reckoned with in most matchups. The Bucks need to utilize his switchability more, especially in the minutes he doesn’t share with the better Lopez brother.
That may mean slotting him in as the defensive 5 at times, something many have been calling for since Jason Kidd was the head coach. But the right pieces, mainly switchable defenders who can shoot, must also be around him for such a scheme to work.
In certain matchups, such as against a post monster like Joel Embiid, this may not be as effective. But how many guys play like him these days anyway? The post-up has become less and less effective every year, and smaller lineups with more malleability are pushing through. If Robert Covington can be a defensive center, so can Giannis Antetokounmpo.
For a more versatile defense, some of the veterans in Milwaukee may have to be sent packing. Ersan Ilyasova, Kyle Korver and Pat Connaughton come to mind, as they are mainly on the court to do one thing: shoot. The drop coverage scheme hides them in the regular season, but not nearly as well in the playoffs. Ilyasova is under contract for next season at $7 million, but Korver and Connaughton are not. They can easily be let go in favor of guys who are closer to two-way players than unitaskers.
It’s difficult to completely shift from something that was so effective the last two seasons. But for Milwaukee to be a true contender, they have to have more than one weapon in their arsenal. A three-level shot-creator would make the offense a lot smoother, but the defense can’t be improvised as easily. The Bucks need a motley of ways to counter opposing attacks.
3. The Bucks need to get younger
In a way, the 2020-21 season is like an extra year of recruiting for the Bucks. They have a leg up on the entire league in terms of showing Antetokounmpo why they’re the best team for him to stay with long term, and one of the best ways they can do that is by highlighting their bright future.
The problem is that the Bucks don’t have one without Giannis. Donte DiVincenzo (23 years old) is the only player in Milwaukee’s playoff rotation younger than the Greek Freak (25). In fact, other than those two, Khris Middleton and Pat Connaughton, the entire supporting cast is on the wrong side of 30 — and Connaughton was a negative for them this postseason.
Why is this the case? Because the Bucks aren’t exceptional at drafting, and when they are, those picks are sent elsewhere. Since hitting a home run with the Giannis pick in 2013, here are the players drafted by Milwaukee (and traded for on draft night):
- 2014: Jabari Parker, Damien Inglis, Johnny O’Bryant, Lamar Patterson
- 2015: Rashad Vaughn, Norman Powell
- 2016: Thon Maker, Malcolm Brogdon, Patrick McCaw
- 2017: D.J. Wilson, Sterling Brown, Sindarius Thornwell
- 2018: Donte DiVincenzo
- 2019: Kevin Porter Jr.
A bunch of those players have had success in the NBA, but only two of them still play for Milwaukee, and one of those two (Wilson) has seen his minutes wane. Even Brogdon, who was a valuable playoff contributor in Milwaukee, is gone now because ownership refused to pay him.
The Bucks don’t have many avenues to add young talent going forward either. The asset cupboard is thin. Recall that they traded four second-round picks for Nikola Mirotic, who only lasted 28 games between the regular season and postseason. Also consider that they used the Porter Jr. pick to offload Tony Snell’s salary, an ownership-driven move that lines up with the Brogdon decision.
There is hope though. The biggest part of their sign-and-trade return for Brogdon will be realized in the upcoming draft, as the Bucks have the 24th overall pick courtesy of the Indiana Pacers. If they actually select a player with that pick, and that player contributes somewhat next season, that will pay serious dividends.
They don’t have to look far to see other avenues to young talent either. Connaughton was drafted in 2015, but let go after three seasons in Portland, paving the way for Milwaukee to take a chance. Wilson isn’t the only player on a rookie contract looking for minutes either; the Bucks can find a trade partner to swap distressed assets.
A lot of these moves will have to happen on the margins, but finding diamonds in the rough is what separates the good organizations from everyone else. The Bucks aren’t necessarily a bad one, but they’ll be pushed to their limits this offseason to keep the second-best player they’ve ever had.